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Pakistan Is the Crisis Flying Under the Radar

Why the Trump administration needs a plan for Pakistan, now.

<> on October 23, 2013 in Washington, DC.
<> on October 23, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The set of foreign-policy challenges headed like a freight train at the Trump administration is obvious: the Islamic State and the associated tragedy of Syria; a bubbling North Korea led by an unpredictable dictator with a fistful of nuclear weapons; an angry China hypersensitive about Taiwan and the South China Sea; and Russian cyber-activity roiling domestic political waters alongside Moscow’s ongoing occupation of Crimea and destruction of Syria. But flying under the radar is a dangerous problem not receiving a great deal of attention: Pakistan.

As the sixth-most-populous country in the world (ahead of Nigeria, and behind Brazil), Pakistan is home to more than 200 million people and, by some accounts, the world’s second-largest city, Karachi. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in May 2013, the country marked its first democratic transition between political parties since partition in 1947. Recently, the strength of the country’s nascent democracy has been questioned as Sharif confronts protests in response to the Panama Papers, which revealed that his family hid wealth in overseas accounts to avoid paying taxes. This highlights the ongoing challenge of corruption (Transparency International rates the country 117 out of 168 on its Corruption Perception Index) that threatens Pakistan’s democratic stability and long-term growth potential. The nation also faces a virulent terrorism problem from the Pakistani Taliban, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians and troops over the past five years. Since 2006, more than 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist events — essentially two 9/11 tragedies per year in a country with a population much smaller than the United States.

Looming over all of this are the issues associated with Pakistan’s long, unsettled relationship with India. Tensions between India and Pakistan have been especially high since September, when Pakistani terrorists attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir, leaving 19 soldiers dead; the two countries have since exchanged daily cross-border fire, leading to the deaths of soldiers and civilians on both sides. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably contains over 100 warheads, existing as a hedge against a similar Indian arsenal. While under a reasonable level of military security at the moment, the nuclear weapons represent the world’s least-stable nuclear capability — with the possible exception of North Korea.

Given this tableau of political instability, terrorism, and nuclear weapons, the United States should be thinking hard about how to help create a more stable situation in Pakistan, a nation that is a friend and partner, but with whom we have had significant differences over the past decades.

First, the Trump administration should recognize that our levers to influence Pakistan are limited — but not entirely impotent. While we can and should be working to strengthen national ties with India, this must be done in a way that is not threatening to Pakistan. Thus, the first best option to help achieve stability in South Asia is to do all we can to encourage India to try to resolve differences with its neighbor. Washington’s role could include top-level official visits to both capitals; offering unofficial “Track 2” negotiating programs; and explicitly making peace and stability in South Asia a U.S. strategic interest, identified in our national strategic planning documents.

Second, the Trump administration should increase military assistance to Pakistan in the counterterrorism fight on the Afghan-Pakistani border. A long source of frustration for U.S. military planners — including during my time as NATO’s supreme allied commander responsible for combat operations in Afghanistan — has been Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban. Developing a package of counterterrorism incentives for Pakistan that requires a quid pro quo of their reducing and eventually dropping support for insurgents within Afghanistan is key. Such incentives could include more robust intelligence sharing; better surveillance and strike technology; and joint operations. Washington’s efforts to sell weapons, surveillance, and intelligence systems to Islamabad have been uneven to say the least. Setting out a coherent, reliable pipeline of military assistance and sales would be very helpful.

A third idea would be to increase soft-power support in Pakistan. When the United States and NATO led relief efforts following the massive earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, it had a significant and positive impact on America’s image in the country. Providing more financial aid tied to education, medicine, and humanitarian projects could help. This is an area where much suspicion lingers following medical programs that are perceived to have been tied to intelligence gathering. We need effective strategic communications alongside the aid to help recover.

A question that arises in the context of soft power is whether to impose conditions on Pakistan in return for the aid it receives. While Republicans in Congress have pushed a more conservative approach to use aid as a tactic to pressure Pakistan, it is unclear how the new administration will approach this. In general, it would be wise to consider both our short- and long-term priorities in the region: Too often, a focus on eradicating terrorism today fails to address the circumstances that drive people to extremism in the first place. Using aid to strengthen democratic stability, create opportunities for citizens, and increase investments to grow the economy will translate into long-term benefits that help minimize incentives to turn to extremism.

Fourth and finally, it would make sense to internationalize our efforts. Working with other nations — Britain or Germany, for example — could leverage the impact of our efforts. There are also international organizations, such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, that exercise considerable influence in Pakistan. Strategizing jointly with international partners can help.

For the Trump administration, the first set of challenges will come fast and furious, and responses will tend to be tactical. Spending some strategic time analyzing the possibility of a classic Black Swan event (low probability, high impact) like the destabilization of Pakistan would make sense. Investing time and effort early with this huge and important nation, while working closely with India, could pay significant dividends in global stability during the next few years.

Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

About the Author

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is <i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Leaders-Bookshelf-James-Stavridis/dp/1682471799">The Leader's Bookshelf.</a></i>

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